Jer 29:4-9 says:
Jer 29:4-9 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream,  for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD.
We should seek the welfare of the city, which for Americans in a representative form of government, means voting (at a minimum). But every election year people are found wrestling with the concept of the lesser of two evils. They don’t really want to vote for a certain fellow, but they feel that they must because he is the only electable candidate from “their side.” My basic position on this issue is that, within a certain range of qualifications, the lesser of two evils (or greater of two goods) is a legitimate way of parsing between candidates. However, outside of that range, it ceases to be a legitimate way of thinking about the candidates. Outside of a certain range, biblical ethics are wrongly replaced by pragmatism or a Machiavellian approach. What follows is the fleshing out of this position.
Biblical Requirements for Rulers
It seems to me that the first thing we should do is look to scripture to see what it has to say about leaders.
Pro 8:16 ESV – by me [wisdom] princes rule, and nobles, all who govern justly.
Pro 29:2 ESV – When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.
Pro 14:34 ESV – Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.
As a general rule, we want the righteous to rule. We want people of wisdom in office. At this point there is probably very little controversy about that. However, it is worth asking what a wise leader is as opposed to a foolish leader. Since someone has already beat me to the punch, I’ll simply link to their work.
Deu 1:13 ESV – Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.’
When Israel was electing tribal chiefs, the direction was to choose men of wisdom, understanding, and experience. Wisdom, again, is a pretty broad concept that is worth exploring in more depth. It is fair to say that concepts like character and integrity are wrapped up in being a man of wisdom. This is reflected in Jephthah’s advice to Moses in Exodus:
Exo 18:17-21 ESV – Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good.  You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.  Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God,  and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do.  Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.
While still under the rule of Moses (and the appointed chiefs) they were looking forward to a king. And in Deuteronomy the king himself was to be subject to the law of God, not accumulate much wealth, not have many wives, and not lead them back from where God had just redeemed them.
Deu 17:14-20 ESV – “When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’  you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.  Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’  And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.  “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests.  And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them,  that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.
Continuing into the New Testament, we can also look at the offices of elders and deacons:
Tit 1:6-9 ESV – if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.  For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain,  but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.  He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
Again, I expect that at this point all Christians agree. Yes, of course we want a wise and righteous ruler. That goes without saying. The real issue is what to do when you are presented with two people who are not righteous. We will get there in due course, but having looked at the ideal for our rulers, let us also consider our role as the people.
Biblical Requirements for the People
Do What is Right
Pro 1:10-15 ESV – My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.  If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us ambush the innocent without reason;  like Sheol let us swallow them alive, and whole, like those who go down to the pit;  we shall find all precious goods, we shall fill our houses with plunder;  throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse”–  my son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths,
Pro 25:26 ESV – Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked.
Act 5:29 ESV – But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.
Mat 7:6 ESV – “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.
1Co 10:13 ESV – No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Mat 16:26 ESV – For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
These passages seem to assume that there will be some serious temptations to throw our lot in with the wicked, but that we should resist that temptation and instead obey God rather than man.
Trust in the Lord
1 Cor 10:13 speaks of a way out. But as we resist the evil ones and seek that way out, we should not always assume that it will be easy. Trusting in God is hard and it is worth exploring in more detail.
Psa 20:7 ESV – Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
The people, for their part, were not to put their trust in the kings or princes. Their hope was to be in God. The upshot of this is that, at a practical level, if your hope is in rulers, then the temptation is to move away from God’s law. But if their hope was in God, then they could follow his law and leave the results to him. This is a recurring theme in scripture.
The original 12 spies looked at the land and the people in it and 10 of them said it was impossible. Their trust was not in God. They looked only at the human level. And from the human perspective, God had dealt them a non-winning hand. They became weak in the knees and opted for self-preservation.
Sometimes they did obey God and it cost them greatly. In the days of the Judges, a great sin was committed in Benjamin that resulted in a civil war with the rest of Israel. The people inquired of God and he told them to go fight against Benjamin, and that day they lost 22,000 men. Disheartened they again inquired of the Lord and God again told them to go and fight. This time 18,000 men were lost. With such staggering losses they again inquired of the Lord and again he told them to go and fight. This time they won decisively. Sometimes obeying God will come at a great cost.
In 2 Kings 17, Ahaz was afraid of Assyria, and for good reason. It seemed like he had no choice but to rely on Egypt for help. So instead of relying on God the way they were supposed to, they looked only at the human level and decided to make an alliance with Egypt. The king of Assyria found out about it and imprisoned Ahaz and invaded and besieged Samaria. Hezekiah, however, trusted in God when, from an earthly perspective, he should have been trusting in Egypt. Maybe they weren’t the best option, but what choice did he have? Instead he trusted in God and the Lord delivered him from the king of Assyria.
This theme is repeated ad nauseum. You stick to God’s word and his standards, even when it seems impractical, and then leave the outcome to him. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Pro 16:33). Sometimes there will be a mighty deliverance. Sometimes you will suffer greatly for your fidelity. But, “Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways” (Pro 28:6).
I began by saying that within a certain range of qualifications, the lesser of two evils (or greater of two goods) is a legitimate way of parsing between candidates. However, outside of that range, it ceases to be biblical and instead descends into pragmatism. So before I tie everything together, I need to layout what I mean by pragmatism.
Pragmatism is a philosophical school of thought. It would be difficult to get into much detail with it because there are actually many different sub-schools of pragmatism. For instance, Pierce believed in the existence of absolute truth, but he felt that it was largely inaccessible. Therefore he proposed we instead orient our thinking around what works. Future pragmatists would jettison the concept of absolutes altogether and what was “true” is what worked. If Buddhism works for you and Christianity works for me, then Buddhism is true for you and Christianity is true for me. But again, there are many different schools of pragmatism. My concern here is not for the more academic schools of pragmatism, but for the street-level version.
Pragmatism only asks “What works” and never, “What are we to be?” Ligonier ministries had an article on pragmatism where they said:
Pragmatism usually looks for immediate solutions without considering whether the answers will work in the long haul. Perhaps the best example of this is the Social Security system in the United States. The problem of people not saving enough for retirement was “solved” by mandating contributions to a government-sponsored savings plan. No one seriously considered whether there would always be enough workers to support these benefits, and now the time is coming when Social Security will be unable to pay out what the government has promised. Jesus opposes this type of short-term thinking, calling us to count the long-term costs of following Him (Luke 14:25–33).
This is not so much about whether Social Security is good or bad, but about whether it was well thought out. In this case the focus is on the immediate fix rather than the long-term solutions. This short-sightedness goes against the grain of how we are encouraged to think in the Bible:
Heb 11:9-10, 24-26 ESV – By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. …  By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter,  choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.  He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.
We, as Christians are not just looking to the next election cycle. We are not even looking to the rest of our life on earth. Our focus is in eternity. In another article titled “Pragmatism Vs. Principle” they say:
In this philosophy, the end always justifies the means. The driving force behind decisions within the scope of pragmatism is the force of expediency.
R.C. Sproul, when asking a US Senator about a number of issues, the answer he kept receiving is that they couldn’t address the issue because it was an election year. At that point:
I looked at the senator and asked, “Is there anybody up here on Capitol Hill who thinks about the next generation instead of the next election?” …No nation (or Christian institution, for that matter) can survive when its leaders are driven by a spirit of pragmatism or make their decisions according to political expediency….A person who is a Christian is called of God to live by biblical principles. …Without principle, the church as well as the culture will decay, and the church will become a mere echo of the unprincipled pragmatism of secularism.
It is well-worth reading the entire article, but the issue is that decisions are made based on expediency rather than long-term planning. But more than that, this article also highlights that in pragmatism, practical concerns trump principles.
Again, we are not speaking of an academic pragmatism that may deny the existence of objective truths. That is a different beast. The senator spoken of believed in the worth of the issues raised, but practical concerns, rather than the principles he said he believed, were what won the day. The ends justifies the means. A person does not need to be a full-blow consistent Machiavellian to be guilty of thinking that the ends justified the means. When a clear biblical principle is passed over in favor of what works, or a quick fix, or some perceived better end, then that person is guilty of pragmatism. James Torrens, writing at Reformation 21 likewise says:
Pragmatism has been defined as the attitude of being concerned for what is practicable, rather than theoretical or idealistic. It sounds attractive and reasonable and it is no surprise that most politicians, who want to see things done, are pragmatists. But what about Christians? Is there any room for pragmatism in Christianity?…what is deemed ethical – the right or ‘true’ way to behave – is determined by a favourable outcome. The ends justify the means and what matters is what works….This uncontained pragmatism (‘what matters is what works’) is used to justify all kinds of strategies in order to ‘advance the gospel’ or ‘build the church’, without any thought as to what kind of gospel is being advanced or what kind of church built…unprincipled pragmatism asks: what good is a dead Daniel, a dead Messiah or dead apostles? On the other hand, biblical wisdom asks: what good is a disobedient Daniel, a disobedient Messiah or disobedient apostles?
Principle is cast aside for practical purposes. Writing for 9 Marks ministries, Andy Johnson relays a conversation he had with someone about missions. They were discussing the merits of a book which advocated a certain approach to reaching Muslims. This friend, “affirmed the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. And he actually agreed that the method advocated by the book seemed at odds with the passages we discussed.” But he went on to say, “Look at the numbers. How can you finally argue with that kind of success?” Andy comments:
I wondered what it meant for him to say Scripture was authoritative and sufficient, but that the Word of God couldn’t compete with “that kind of success.”. . . I am not suggesting that everything we do which is pragmatic is ill-advised (taking airplanes overseas instead of boats, for instance). Rather, I’m talking about a willingness to overlook or even contradict what the Bible says for the sake of what appears to work visibly and immediately. . . our problem is much more subtle and insidious. I’m talking about how many of us live and operate, not what we say, sign, or affirm. (emphasis mine)
This was a man who was a Christian. He was conservative. He affirmed the authority & sufficiency of scripture. I’m sure he would in no way self-identify as Machiavellian or as a pragmatist. Yet, when push came to shove, he had a hard time not going with what “worked.”
I think that most people who would read my blog are the type who would generally eschew the pragmatic church growth methods. While playing U2 for worship and preaching self-help sermons may “work,” we are not being faithful when we do that. It is with that audience in mind that I offer the following exercise.
Suppose that your church was seeking to fill an elder position and there were three men who were nominated (two of which are very popular, and the third, while a great man, is not likely to get much of a vote). The church would soon be voting on these individuals. As we think through who to vote for we go over the qualifications for elders in Paul’s letters to Titus and Timothy. We realize that these qualifications are not intended to rule out anyone who has ever sinned. Rather, we astutely recognize that these are things that should characterize elders. A man who at one point wished he had received a larger raise at work is not disqualified. But someone who is characterized by a love of money is. If all three men meet the biblical qualifications, then, it seems to me, that you should vote for the greater of the two goods, (or even the greater of the two who are most likely to be nominated).
However, further suppose that two of the individuals were disqualified. One of them was a lover of money. He was known to compromise on what was right for a little bribe. His love of money made him a servant to the highest bidder. The other popular man was a womanizer. He had been involved with several women in the church already, and he was currently in an open marriage with another couple. The third man, while he had very little popular backing, was a good family man who loved God and loved His word. He wasn’t perfect, but he was biblically qualified. Who do you vote for?
This doesn’t seem to hard for me. If they are all qualified, I will choose the best of the “electable” options. No harm no foul. However, if two of the three are disqualified, then I vote for the one guy who is qualified, even if I know he won’t get in. God’s word is clear on the matter, and if they are disqualified, then they will never get my vote. Yes, that means that possibly the worst of the two may get into office, but he will have to do so without my vote.
As Christians, we must live by biblical principles. So if a man is disqualified for the office of elder, then he will never get my vote. But if the candidates are qualified, then within that range, I may choose either the one I like the best, or the one I like the best out of the “electable” options.
The same holds true for political office. If scripture describes the qualifications of an elder of the church, or the elder of a city, or the chief of a tribe, or a king, then that is my guideline. We all know that no one is perfect. Some candidates may be more ideal than others. Some may be more “electable” than others. But as long as they are all qualified, then there is freedom in how a person decides who to vote for. But if a person is disqualified, then I won’t allow my conscience to be beaten into submission by the expedient. I will vote by principle and leave the results to God. If two candidates knowingly, routinely, and unrepentantly defy the characteristics that scripture lays out for any office that it describes, then I vote on principle, not pragmatism. Even if it costs me dearly, at the end of the day, I must obey God, not statistics.